Wasn't the Sacred Heart Devotion to Be the Last Opportunity?

This year, the Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on Friday, June 11. To help us understand why, we share here an article by Dr. Robert Stackpole on the connection between devotion to the Sacred Heart and the Divine Mercy message and devotion:

Let me return to a question from a reader named Wendy that just happens to touch upon my favorite topic in the whole world: the Heart of Jesus!

Wendy wrote:

I learned about Divine Mercy a couple of years ago, and I really love this devotion. The bulletin at our Catholic church had an article about another devotion, The Sacred Heart of Jesus, and it referenced the website sacredheartdevotion.com. While reading this website, I saw this statement on the home page that is attributed to a saint: "This devotion was the last effort of His love that He would grant to men in these latter ages, in order to withdraw them from the empire of Satan ...". I believe this statement was made in the 1700s, but I know that St. Faustina received the message of the Divine Mercy in the 1930s. This has been bothering me. How can they say that the Sacred Heart devotion was to be the last opportunity to turn to Jesus, when St. Faustina received her message almost 300 years later? Thank you in advance for any insight you can provide on this.

A special thank you from me to Wendy for this question. My doctoral thesis in Rome was on devotion to the Heart of Jesus, and my first book for Marian Press (just recently gone out of print) had a chapter entitled "The Sacred Heart and The Divine Mercy" in which I discussed the close relationship between these two beautiful and central themes of Catholic spirituality. Your question gives me just the excuse I need to quote portions of that chapter here for my readers!

But first, an answer to your specific question. There may be a mistake in translation. The quote on the website is from St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, and in my thesis I quoted the very same passage from her Autobiography, where she says: "This devotion [to the Sacred Heart] was a last resort of His love which wished to favour men in these last centuries with His loving redemption, in order to withdraw them from the empire of Satan ..." (The Autobiography of St. Margaret Mary. Rockford, Illinois: TAN, 1986, pp. 106-107).

Notice: "a last resort," not "the last effort." There seems to be a difference in the two translations from the French original here. I don't have the original French version in front of me, but it is possible that the TAN translation is more accurate, in which case our Lord did not tell St. Margaret Mary that the spread of the devotion to the Sacred Heart is His last big effort to save the world, but "a" last resort - in other words, one among other things He is doing as a last effort to rescue us.

However, let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that our Lord really did tell this saint that the spread of devotion to His Heart was His last major effort to defeat Satan's hold on the world. Would that mean that devotion to His Divine Mercy is nothing more than a "sideshow"? No, because devotion to His Merciful Love and devotion to His Loving Heart, I would argue, are inseparable! Devotion to the Divine Mercy is but a further development, an unfolding of the spirituality of the Heart of Jesus. As St. Faustina herself once wrote: "The Love of God is the flower - Mercy the fruit" (Diary, 948).

Think of it this way: In Sr. Faustina, we find a holy soul completely devoted to the Heart of Jesus, but in a new way. As she recorded in her Diary:

O Blood and Water, which gushed forth from the Heart of Jesus as a fount of mercy for us, I trust in You! (entry 84)

He brought me into such close intimacy with Himself that my heart was espoused to His Heart in a loving union, and I could feel the faintest stir of His Heart, and He of mine. The fire of my created love was joined with the ardor of His eternal love. (1056)

O my Jesus, each of your saints reflects one of your virtues; I desire to reflect Your compassionate Heart, full of mercy; I want to glorify it. Let Your Mercy, O Jesus, be impressed upon my heart and soul like a seal, and this will be my badge in this and the future life. (1242)

On several occasions Christ Himself emphasized that His Heart is the source of Divine Mercy for the world:

My daughter, know that My Heart is mercy itself. From this sea of mercy graces flow out upon the whole world. No soul that has approached Me has ever gone away unconsoled. All misery gets buried in the depths of My mercy, and every saving and sanctifying grace flows from this fountain. (1777)

In another passage in her Diary, St. Faustina poured out her soul in adoration of the living Heart of Jesus in the Eucharist:

O living Host, my one and only strength, fountain of love and mercy, embrace the whole world, and fortify faint souls. Oh, blessed be the instant and the moment when Jesus left us His most merciful Heart. (223)

Clearly, for St. Faustina, the center of her life, her first love, was the Merciful Heart of Jesus. Her devotion was to the Sacred Heart, but focused on the merciful love that flows to us from His Heart.

Now, all of this leads to an obvious question: What is the proper relationship between these two devotions, these two streams of Heart-spirituality in the Church, namely, the devotion to the Sacred Heart and the devotion to the Divine Mercy? Are they in competition with each other for the allegiance of the faithful? Is there room in the Church for both? Is there any need in the Church for both?

On the one hand, some Catholics seem to feel that devotion to the Sacred Heart is enough - that there is no need for this new devotion to the Divine Mercy because it largely duplicates what we have already been given in the Sacred Heart tradition. At the other extreme, some Catholics seem to feel there is no longer any need for the traditional devotion to the Sacred Heart; now that we have the "new and improved" version, so to speak, in devotion to the Divine Mercy and to the Merciful Heart of Jesus, we can just let the old Sacred Heart traditions, such as the First Friday Communions and the images of the Sacred Heart, fade away quietly and be forgotten.

The truth is, however, that saints, visionaries, and several popes have seen these two things - the Divine Mercy and the Sacred Heart - as so closely bound up with each other as to be absolutely inseparable. Thus, the Church needs both the traditional devotion to the Sacred Heart, and the newer devotion to the Divine Mercy, alive and well among the faithful.

Saint John Eudes (1601-1680), for example, was the pioneer of the liturgical worship of the Sacred Heart. But in his "Meditations for the Feast of the Sacred Heart," we find the following revealing passage entitled "The Divine Mercy should be the Object of our Very Special Devotion":

Of all the divine perfections mirrored in the Sacred Heart of our Savior we should have a very special devotion to divine mercy and we should endeavor to engrave its image on our heart.

Similarly, consider the visions and locutions (allegedly) received by Sr. Josefa Menendez in the 1920s, recorded for us in a beautiful little book entitled The Way of Divine Love. The whole book is a tender expression of devotion to the Sacred Heart. However, Jesus also explained to her that the message of the merciful love of His Heart must be proclaimed to all people. She recorded the words of our Lord as follows:

How often in the course of the ages have I, in one way or another, made known my love for men: I have shown them how ardently I desire their salvation. I have revealed my Heart to them. This devotion has been as light cast over the whole earth, and today is a powerful means of gaining souls, and so of extending My kingdom.

Now I want something more, for if I long for love in response to My own, this is not the only return I desire from souls: I want them all to have confidence in My mercy, to expect all from my clemency, and never to doubt my readiness to forgive.

This is what I wish all to know. I will teach sinners that the mercy of My Heart is inexhaustible. Let the callous and indifferent know that My Heart is a fire which will enkindle them, because I love them ... above all that they should trust Me, and never doubt My mercy. It is so easy to trust completely in My Heart! ...

My Heart is not only an abyss of love; it is also an abyss of mercy.

In addition to the saints and visionaries who have seen the Sacred Heart of Jesus as inseparable from His Divine Mercy, two of the popes of the twentieth century have explicitly taught the same thing. In his encyclical on the Sacred Heart, Haurietis Aquas (1956), Pope Pius XII wrote:

Christ our Lord, exposing His Sacred Heart, wished in a quite extraordinary way to invite the minds of men to a contemplation of, and devotion to, the mystery of God's merciful love for the human race. In this special manifestation Christ pointed to His Heart, with definite and repeated words, as the symbol by which men should be attracted to a knowledge and recognition of His love; and at the same time He established it as a sign or pledge of mercy and grace for the needs of the Church and our times.

A similar teaching can be found in the encyclical Dives in Misericordia of Pope John Paul II. He tells us of the centrality of the Heart of Jesus in revealing God's mercy:

The Church seems in a special way to profess the mercy of God and to venerate it when she directs herself to the Heart of Christ. In fact, it is precisely this drawing close to Christ in the mystery of His Heart which enables us to dwell on ... the merciful love of the Father, which constituted the central content of the messianic mission of the Son of Man.

In short, according to saints, visionaries and popes, we need to be devoted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and, at the same time, to have a special devotion to the Divine Mercy that flows to us from His Heart. And the reason for this is simple: Jesus has only one Heart! His Sacred Heart is His Merciful Heart - they are one and the same. The Sacred Heart overflows with Merciful Love for us, and that is why, in principle at least, these two devotions are inseparable.

Think of it this way: The human heart is the symbol of the deepest mystery of a person. When we talk about someone's heart, we are talking about what really "makes him tick," what the person really, deep down, thinks and feels and desires. As the Catechism tells us in no. 2563:

The heart is our hidden center, beyond the grasp of our reason and of others; only the Spirit of God can fathom the human heart, and know it fully.

Again, our heart is the deepest mystery of our person; it is our "hidden center," from which most of what we think and do and say proceeds.

According to the Bible, some people are cold-hearted, or hard-hearted; they have hearts of "stone" (e.g. Ez 11:19). The mystery of the Heart of Jesus, however, has been revealed to us through the gospels, and beautifully expressed in His apparitions to St. Margaret Mary. Whatever we may say about other human hearts, this person, Jesus of Nazareth, has a Heart that is aflame with love, love for His heavenly Father and love for us.

That is why He showed His physical Heart to St. Margaret Mary as flaming with fire, surmounted by a cross, and pierced and surrounded by thorns. All of these were clear signs and symbols that this Heart - the person of Jesus Christ - is pure love: the Sacred Heart of Jesus as all love and all lovable.

Our task in the devotion to the Sacred Heart is to return love for love: by the grace and fire of His Holy Spirit, to love our Lord back for all of His infinite, generous, and tender love for us.

However, there is another way we can view the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Saint Catherine of Siena put it best back in the Middle Ages that God's love always crosses a bridge of mercy to reach us. In other words, the Sacred Heart of Jesus is all love, but the form that love takes when it reaches out to human beings is merciful love. For mercy is compassionate love; mercy is love that seeks to overcome and relieve all the miseries of others. Saint Thomas Aquinas defined "mercy" as "the compassion in our hearts for another person's misery, a compassion which drives us to do what we can to help him" (Summa Theologiae, II-II. 30.1). Divine Mercy, therefore, is the form that our Lord's love for us takes when He meets our need and our brokenness. Whatever the name of our misery may be - sin, guilt, suffering, or death - the Heart of Jesus is always ready to pour out His merciful, compassionate love for us, to help in time of need.

In fact, God's love for His creatures always takes the form of merciful love. As we read in the Psalms (25:10), "all the ways of the Lord are mercy and truth;" and again (145:9), "His tender mercies are over all His works." When He created the world ex nihilo, therefore, and holds it in being at every moment, it is an act of merciful love: His merciful love overcoming the potential nothingness, the possible non-existence of all things. When the divine Son became incarnate and dwelt among us, that was an act of merciful love, too: His merciful love in sharing our lot, showing us the way to the Father, and making the perfect offering for our sins. When He sends His Holy Spirit into our hearts to refresh and sanctify us, that too is His merciful love: His merciful love pouring into our hearts the power to grow in faith, hope, and love, and to serve Him with joy. Psalm 135 says it best; while celebrating all the works of the Lord in creation and redemption, the psalm bears the constant refrain: "for His mercy endures for ever."

It was St. Catherine of Siena who summed up for us the centrality of the merciful love of God for us in her famous book The Dialogue (section 30):

By your mercy we were created. And by your mercy we were created anew in your Son's blood. It is your mercy that preserves us ...

Your mercy is life-giving. It is the light in which both the upright and sinners discover your goodness. Your mercy shines forth in your saints in the height of heaven. And if I turn to the earth, your mercy is everywhere. Even in the darkness of hell your mercy shines, for you do not punish the damned as much as they deserve.

You temper your justice with mercy. In mercy you cleansed us in the blood; in mercy you kept company with your creatures. O mad lover! It was not enough for you to take on our humanity: You had to die as well! Nor was death enough: You descended to the depths to summon our holy ancestors and fulfill your truth and mercy in them ...

I see your mercy pressing you to give us even more when you leave yourself with us as food to strengthen our weakness ... Every day you give us this food, showing us yourself in the sacrament of the altar within the mystic body of holy Church. And what has done this? Your mercy.

O mercy! My heart is engulfed with the thought of you! For wherever I turn my thoughts I find nothing but mercy! (25)

In short, the Sacred Heart of Jesus is perfectly loving - divine, human, and affectionate love all at once - and therefore all lovable. But whenever the love of His Heart reaches out to us - to our nothingness, our brokenness, our woundedness, and our need - that love always takes the form of merciful, compassionate love. Therefore, at the center of our devotional life - our "first love" - should be the Sacred and Merciful Heart of Jesus. The Sacred Heart overflows with mercy and compassion for us, and that is what makes devotion to the Heart of Jesus and devotion to His Divine Mercy, in principle, absolutely inseparable. ...

I guess you can tell by the length of this week's answer that I love this topic!

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.

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